Pols speak out on pot bust reform: "This is what's right"

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In a press conference that was unthinkable just a short time ago, several county and city officials Thursday morning vowed to push for changes in local and state law that would make low-level possession of marijuana punishable by tickets instead of arrests.

Citing data Ben Joravsky and I reported recently, Cook County commissioner John Fritchey and four Chicago aldermen said the time has come to “do what’s right” and stop spending money and time locking up casual pot users.

“I think we’re spinning our wheels, we’re wasting our time, and we’re also wasting taxpayers’ money,” said Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward). “This is a common-sense, makes-sense issue. This is what’s right.”

Burnett’s colleague, alderman Danny Solis (25th), said he would introduce an ordinance to the full City Council next week making possession of small amounts of pot—about a third of an ounce or less—punishable with a $200 ticket.

“We have been screaming and pleading—and when I say ‘we’ I mean communities across the city of Chicago—that we need more police officers in our neighborhoods,” Solis said. “And when a police officer makes an arrest on a simple possession of marijuana, that police officer will be going into the station, spending maybe up to two hours doing paperwork, and taking himself or herself out from patrolling our neighborhoods.”

Fritchey quoted our estimate—a conservative one—that police across Cook County spend 84,000 hours a year on marijuana arrests.

“We can better use our resources in the streets,” said Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th).

Burnett and Alderman Richard Mell (33rd) said they were especially troubled that pot arrests—which are mostly carried out in black neighborhoods—give people criminal records that can block them from job or housing opportunities. They noted that these busts also add a huge burden on the court system. “We’re talking about making some common sense,” Mell said.

Yet for years addressing the subject publicly was considered a no-no by anyone who didn't want to look soft on crime.

Recently, though, the landscape has shifted. Tough budget times—along with a growing realization that the punishments for low-level pot possession are far harsher than the crime—have started to make pot law reform a good-government cause.

Wonkish Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle has spoken out repeatedly on the matter, and after the press conference she issued a statement reiterating her position. “The decades-long war on drugs has failed to eradicate drug use and no longer holds up as sound policy,” she said. “As I’ve said before, the social cost of incarceration coupled with the cost of prolonged, unnecessary court proceedings has taken a toll on our criminal justice system and on taxpayers for far too long.”

The aldermen at the press conference were confident that the full City Council will eventually support a ticketing ordinance. They noted that $200 fines would generate revenue for the city’s strapped budget—a likely selling point. They stressed that anyone picked up with an outstanding warrant, or anyone caught dealing pot, would still face arrest and prosecution. And they made it clear they're not talking about legalizing pot—yet.

But they said they're intent on talking openly about reforms, in the City Council and potentially in the state legislature, where Rep. La Shawn Ford has introduced a similar ticketing measure.

“I don't expect it will be passed immediately," Solis said of the city ordinance he's planning to introduce. "But at least we can get the dialog going.”

So far, though, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been quiet on the issue. Fritchey and the aldermen said they had not yet spoken with him about changing pot arrest policies, though his aides had expressed support.

The mayor’s press office didn’t respond to my request for comment.

"This is not the final step—this is an historic first step," said Fritchey. "The city has the opportunity to be a leader nationally on what marijuana policy should look like."

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